Friends: The first eight miles of today's ten-mile category one climb over the Col de Portet, another brute, is so narrow I never would have guessed it could possibly be on The Tour route. Its going to be a very tight squeeze for some of the float-sized vehicles in the caravan. Sections were so narrow I had to occasionally pull over and dismount when a rare car came along. It is no wonder that it has never been on The Tour route until this year.
There were just a few spots wide enough for Tour followers to have parked their campers or set up their tents for the night on those first eight miles. The final two miles, though, traverses a wide ridge with spectacular views of the distant high Pyrenees. It was wide enough to already have been packed bumper-to-bumper with campers 24 hours before the peloton would pass. There were a handful of cyclists giving it a ride, but nothing like the throngs on the Tourmalet. Both climbs attract enough cyclists for there to be signs every kilometer bearing a cyclist and the elevation and the grade for the next kilometer. If the grade was 9.5%, the next sign would show a gain of 95 meters in elevation. Since I knew I had to get to 1,432 meters starting from a little over 300 I was happy for every gain I made on the summit.
Tackling the Portet wasn't exactly the best way for me to spend a so-called rest day, and I could have easily skipped it by continuing on the more direct and flat main highway between St. Girons and Foix rather than following The Tour route that dipped down to one of the narrow, lightly-trafficked secondary roads that make The Tour so picturesque. This route was so idyllic, it was a wonder that The Tour had never gone this way before. Though it was a much greater expenditure of energy to go this way I was very happy to join with all those who had already gathered along the route and to glimpse the homages the tiny towns along the way had to offer.
Many of the mental photos I took along the way are sure to stick with me, as well as a couple I took with my camera. One was of a bare-chested hermit of a guy who had set up his tent on a nub of a grassy cliff overlooking the road. He was perched in his camp chair, soaking in the sun, while his team banners flapped in the breeze. I also snapped a shot of a small encampment of Belgians with their black, gold and red flag flying along with a large white bed-sheet stretched between a couple of trees proclaiming, "We Miss You Tom." Tom is Tom Boonen, who was denied entry to The Tour by its organizers for testing positive for cocaine in an out of competition drug test about six weeks ago. Its not an official suspension, just a choice of the Tour de France. Boonen is such a prominent figure in Europe that it was front page news in Spain while I was there.
Cycling's governing body did not sanction Boonen for the use of the recreational drug, but Tour de France officials arbitrarily decided to refuse him entry, not wanting their race tainted by a drug-taker of any kind, reasoning that he who uses any illicit drug will be inclined to take another. If this were the U.S., Boonen could well have sicced a peloton of lawyers on The Tour. As one of cycling's premier figures, Boonen is emerging as Belgium's greatest cyclist since the greatest of them all--Eddie Merckx. Belgium was so upset with Boonen's exclusion, it withdrew its ambassador from France in protest. Lucky for France Belgium isn't Germany. It might have prompted military action. Its been nearly 70 years since Germany last invaded France after doing it three times in less than 75 years. Some would say they are overdue.
After today the racers will enjoy a three-day reprieve from the mountains. Then on Sunday they take on the Alps, venturing into Italy for two stages. There ought to be relative calm in the standings until then, despite the mere one second difference between Evans and Schleck at the top of the standings. It is the mountains that provide the excitement and lustre to the racing. When I was circling around the vast plaza in Toulouse while crews were just starting to set up the elaborate departure structure in front of its grandiose Mairie several evenings ago, searching for the course markers indicating the route out, I couldn't spot them and had to ask. The first cyclist I encountered said he was just visiting and had no idea. The second was a homeless-looking guy on a Huffy of a bike. At my query, he instantly responded with a grand sweep of his arm pointing to his left and gleefully blurted, "Tomorrow they go to the Pyrenees," knowing that it implied The Race would truly begin. Then he directed me to the corner of the plaza the peloton would exit. It was a bit of a challenge to find the course markers through the large metropolis of Toulouse, one of France's five largest cities, but only once did I have to ask if I were still on course.
Today is much more of a rest day for me than yesterday. I ended up riding 80 miles of today's route. I finished it off this morning arriving in Foix by ten a.m. I will be off the bike until 5:30. Then I'll lead the charge to tomorrow's stage start 20 miles away and hopefully get at least 20 miles further down the road giving me a good chance to beat the peloton to the stage finish, allowing me the luxury of watching the peloton on the giant screen for a couple of hours as I will do today. The following two stages involve no transfer between finish and start, so I will be in great shape to have seen the peloton pass on each of the first 13 stages. I probably won't make it to Italy, but instead will head to L'Alpe d'Huez, which will be the third and final day in the Alps for the peloton. Hopefully I will find some Internet along the way.